I, for one, miss J.C. Hardaway’s barbecue sandwich and The Big S Grill…
Terrible to find out that our favorite pitmaster has passed away. JC Hardaway, who made the best chopped pork sandwiches and hamburgers in Memphis, passed away sunday at age 78.
Visiting the Big S to chow down on JC’s food was a weekly ritual. JC would bring out a pad of paper and we’d jot down the orders while he brought out our quarts of beer, always chuckling to himself about something or other, always enthused that we came for his food.
our standard approach was to order one cheeseburger and one chopped sandwich- the heat from the bbq would be tempered by the burger, and everything then washed down by some cold beer. Damn! The combination of flavors and the permanently-midnight interior decor of the big S made the the whole experience otherworldly- we never wanted to leave.
Ribs weren’t always available- possibly because JC seemed to get the biggest ribs i’ve ever seen- and maybe buffalo ribs weren’t always for sale in Memphis? When we did opt for the ribs,they were tangy, salty, and sweet. And big enough for at least one more meal.
It was always great taking foreigners into this “bad area” and watching their responses as they tasted the food. It was great the way JC would greet ’em “where are you from? France? Have you heard of me? I’m world-famous!” It was great the time jay went nuts and ate 4 cheeseburgers. or was it bbq sandwiches? it was a lot of food, either way. It was great when we were watching the hopeless, hapless Grizz beat the Lakers on tv in the Big S. It was great when we finished the Big S t-shirts, with JC’s face on the back…. turned out to be a limited edition. I hope you got yours.
A group of us went to see him a while back when he first went into the hospital and brought him some things, but he was heavily medicated and so out of it that i think we confused him more than helped. JC, true to form, kept trying to get out of bed to fix my friend eric a cheeseburger.
we miss you JC.
J.C. Hardaway, Pit Master, 1924-2002
by Lolis Eric Elie
It was Frank Stewart’s memory that led us to Hawkins Grill that May night in 1993. As a boy, growing up in Memphis, he had eaten barbecue at that small, unheralded place. All those years later, the flavor of the place lingered in his memory.
The sandwiches we would eat that night at Hawkins Grill would be the first of many we would ingest in the course of preparing our book, Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Heart of Barbecue Country. It was an unfortunate beginning, in a way. J.C. Hardaway, the pitmaster at Hawkins Grill, would come to represent for me and for many the ultimate in barbecue mastery. Little did we know that biting into those sandwiches we would put ourselves on a long and disappointing road. We tasted barbecue all over this vast country of ours. None of it was better than what we ate that night at Hawkins Grill. J.C.’s was a meticulous method.
Sitting on a hot grill, there was a pork shoulder wrapped in aluminum foil. As Al Green or Albert King or Frankie Beverly played on the jukebox, J.C. cut a few slices and set them to warm on the grill. On the same grill, he toasted the hamburger buns. While the meat cooked, he splashed them with barbecue sauce from an old Palmolive dish detergent bottle. The meat was then placed on a worn chopping board, chopped with a dull clever, placed on the toasted bun, topped with a mayonnaise-based coleslaw, cut in half, stuck with a toothpick, and served.
It was a sandwich like that one that led me to write, “In J.C. Hardaway, the shoulder sandwich has discovered its Stradivarius.” The sentiment was not mine alone. J.C. was the only chef invited to cook twice at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s annual symposium. There is no more exacting audience for American food than that crowd. He wowed them as he did everyone.
You would think that in Memphis, Tennessee, a barbecue crazed town, that a man like J.C. Hardaway would be a local legend, right up there with B.B. King and Elvis Presley. But truth be told, he worked in relatively obscurity, known only by the folks in the neighborhood and the few serious connoisseurs who sought him out near the corner of Bellview and McLemore. The local food critics didn’t know him. And even at Hawkins, his genius wasn’t appreciated. The owners sold the place and the new owners deluded themselves into thinking they could cook as well as J.C. The business died while J.C. moved around the corner to the Big S Grill, where he completed his career.
Little by little he came to be more widely known. He was mentioned in magazine articles, and in his hometown newspaper. He was honored with the Keeper of the Flame award by the Southern Foodways Alliance, and his fans even had t-shirts and business cards printed up for him. But the end was bittersweet. Years of standing up 12 hours a day, cooking, serving, and cleaning took its toll. His advanced age and failing health made it difficult for him to fully enjoy the accolades that were his in later life.
But when those many midnights turned to mornings and when the small aisle of Hawkins was filled with dancers and there were as many empty quart beer bottles on the bar as there were full ones left in the cooler, what emerged on the plate from J.C. Hardaway’s cramped kitchen was as much about nostalgia as it was about food. The taste of his sandwiches invoked the ancestors. And as you ate at Hawkins, the nostalgic details of your own biography in food played in your mind, while you chewed with an intense silence.
So it is fitting now that for the happy few who knew J.C. and his genius, he has become a legend. An ancestor. And years from now, when we are that much further from his era and its culinary ideals, we will still conjure that flavor in our mouth’s memory and smile.
– Lolis Eric Elie
Memphis pit masters Raymond Robinson (Cozy Corner Barbecue) and J. C. Hardaway (Big S Lounge) serve up their origin stories and talk meat—from Boston butt to ribs to Cornish hens.
Smokestack Lightning, a Day in the Life of Barbecue. Filmmakers and serious eaters Scott Stohler and David Bransten of Bay Package Productions follow ten subjects from five different states, exploring “the history and tradition of this food from its rural beginnings to its present day incarnation in large-scale commercial organizations.”
J.C. Hardaway is a famous Memphis pit master and owner of the Big S. Lounge. His sauce is simple and very good.J.C.Hardaway’s Famous BBQ Sauce
- 1 – 18 ounce bottle of Kraft Hickory Smoked BBQ Sauce
- 1 3.5 ounce bottle Liquid Smoke
- 1.5 lbs. granulated sugar. (I use half that amount.)
- 4 cups white or red vinegar (I use Mussleman’s apple cider vinegar.)
- 1 – 16 ounce bottle Hunt’s Tomato Ketchup (J.C. says it has to be Hunt’s.)